There's a really encouraging trend in evangelicalism that you've probably noticed, if not are already participating in. The church has become increasingly zealous to meet the many needs of the world—from famine and poverty to genocide and human trafficking. This trend forces churches and individual Christians to consider their role in social justice, mercy ministry, and missions. Because there are endless possibilities for service and the fact that the term “mission” is defined rather broadly and variably, trying to figure out what our mission actually is can be overwhelming. What should the priorities of the church be as it engages with the world?
That's the question authors Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert seek to help clarify in their newest book What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. They were kind enough to answer a handful of questions for the Crossway blog:
How do you define mission? Is it different from missions? Missional? Why has the term become so convoluted?
Mission is what God sends us into the world to accomplish. In an ultimate sense, of course, you might say the mission of the church is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But when we use the word “mission” we think more specifically of a task or goal which God sends us out to do. The send out is an important part of the definition—mission comes from a Latin word for “send.” We want to rescue the word mission. It has a long history and needs to be more precisely defined if we are to understand what missions week is about or what the missions committee does or what are missionaries are trying to accomplish. Missional is a newer term. It can simply be shorthand for “get out of your holy huddles and care about your communities.” But it also can encapsulate a number of assumptions about kingdom, shalom, incarnational ministry, social justice that need to be looked at carefully.
How is the mission of the church distinct from the mission of individual Christians? Or from the mission of God?
God calls individual Christians to different tasks. Some may be artists or teachers or politicians or farmers. We can do all sorts of things to the glory of God. But God has given the institution of the church a unique task. She can support artists and love farmers, but God has not commanded the Church to paint or to grow corn. The Church is called to make disciples. As to the second question, we cannot simply equate the mission of God with the mission of the church. Some of what God does he promises to accomplish but does not expect us to create or bring about. Often we can’t do what God does in his mission. In other cases, it would be wrong for the Church to carry out the mission of God. God will destroy the wicked and unbelieving in the lake of fire. But that final judgment is not part of our mission. As a general rule, our role is to bear witness to God’s mission rather than to accomplish what only he can and should accomplish.
...we cannot simply equate the mission of God with the mission of the church.
You talk about how there are things the church can do that we often categorize as things that the church ought to do. Why is it important to distinguish between the two?
It's important to keep in mind the difference between can and ought because there are literally thousands of good things that the church could give itself to doing. One of the things that makes a discussion of the church's mission difficult is that the issues are so often discussed in the abstract. People ask questions like, "Would it be wrong for the church to do this or that?" But any church leader with at least one budget-cycle of experience under his belt is going to realize that questions like that aren't answered in the abstract. They're answered in a world where resources are limited, where there are ten different good ideas on the table and resources to do precisely two of them. Church leaders have to do the hard work of figuring out which two to do. That's why it's important to have a clear sense of what the church's mission actually is, given to her by her Lord. It helps us to do the hard thinking about where to put scarce resources, time, and energy.
If the mission of the church is proclamation and disciple making, then what is the theological motivation for good works?
The Bible gives us many motivations for good works, and they are not small motivations, either. For example, we do good works simply because we love God. We do good works because as Christians, we are to love our neighbors. We do them to show the world something of the character of God's people and therefore of God himself. We do them because they are the natural fruit of a life that has known the grace of God. Those are just a few. We don't in any way want to pull the rug out from under Christians' desire to do good. In fact, the Bible tells us that we are to be "zealous" in doing good works. But it's important that we motivate and understand those good works in the right way. That's what we're trying to do in What Is the Mission of the Church?.
Why is it important for the church to undertake mercy ministries in their communities?
Mercy ministries can be a great way to further the church's mission of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. Both of our churches are involved in various mercy ministries, and we encourage our members to be involved, too. When you reach out and love the people around you, several things happen. For one, you create space for people to hear what you have to say. Many people have simply shut their ears and minds to the church's message, but when they unexpectedly see Christians going out of their way to love, it challenges their preconceptions and opens up room for them to hear the gospel. Also, when the church involves itself in mercy ministries, that can be a powerful validation of the church's message in people's minds: The gospel message that the church proclaims really does result in changed lives, changed motivations, and changed desires.
What’s the danger in underselling what the Bible says about the poor and social justice? What’s the danger in overselling?
Obviously, the danger in underselling what the Bible says about the poor is that we excuse disobedience and apathy. Jesus was moved by human need; so should we. On the other hand, if we oversell the point, we end up making Christians feel guilty for things they are not really guilty of. Our motives may be good, but we can end up exhausting people, or worse, advocating positions and policies that seem biblical but may actually harm the people we mean to help. And one other point: whenever we talk about the poor there is a danger that we forget our own spiritual poverty and only think of the poor as people we must rescue, only as those over there with problems that we must solve.